Sequels almost always turn out a disappointment compared to the original: Jaws, Speed, The Matrix trilogy and more works all tried but failed to replicate the success of their first installment. Frank Lampard is learning first-hand the perils that come with maintaining expectations at a top Premier League club, but Chelsea are themselves responsible for this season’s early struggles.
It was always going to be the case that last term would provide Lampard a low-pressure environment for his first campaign as a top-flight manager, and the script was pre-written as such. Chelsea’s transfer embargo meant they and the spectating public were all aware of their squad limitations; a fourth-place finish in the Premier League, an FA Cup runners-up medal and advancing to the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League were treated as bonuses after that.
But that early success also sets a precedent for the minimum return thereafter, especially when the club have just embarked upon a historic summer of spending to make up for last year’s lack of transfer activity. More than $250 million paid to acquire the likes of Kai Havertz ($85m), Timo Werner ($59m), Ben Chilwell ($65m), Hakim Ziyech ($44m) and Edouard Mendy ($28m), while centre-backs Thiago Silva and Malang Sarr arrived on free transfers.
That group in itself accounts for half a starting XI, each with their own vision of figuring prominently in Lampard’s XI as soon as possible. None bar Mendy will expect to “bide their time” or “wait for opportunity” in their new home, but rather they will hope to transform Chelsea into title contenders across multiple fronts right now.
Hope and vision is one thing, but turning the blueprint into tangible results is another challenge altogether, as Lampard and his new-look lineup have discovered. Chelsea beat Brighton & Hove Albion 3-1 in their Premier League opener but have lost and drawn against Liverpool and West Bromwich Albion, respectively, since then.
The Blues battered Barnsley 6-0 in their first Carabao Cup clash of the campaign but exited the tournament’s fourth round after losing 5-4 on penalties to Tottenham Hotspur (1-1 after 90 minutes), led by former mentor Jose Mourinho:
A sea of change on such a scale deserves some sympathy, though it’s unlikely billionaire owner Roman Abramovich will afford the same emotion after investing so much on players in a single transfer window. Chelsea have brought in the quality and quantity of players the likes of which many other managers can only dream; Lampard’s task is to make it all tick as quickly as possible.
But that comes with problems of its own.
Too Many Pegs, Not Enough Holes
Last season, the manager’s job was to get the most from those at his disposal, elevating numerous academy graduates into first-team roles and squeezing the best out of players who some might consider expendable. Competition for places has naturally skyrocketed as a result of such a busy summer, but Lampard’s duties have expanded to ensure all under his command are happy while getting the tactics right to compete across multiple fronts, at home and abroad.
Werner and Ziyech had their moves to west London agreed early in 2020 and first arrived at Cobham on July 1, though injuries have delayed the latter in making his official debut so far.
Havertz, Chilwell and Silva are much newer arrivals to Lampard’s setup and will take time to settle. That need to gain confidence was perhaps best summed up by Silva’s costly mistake in the buildup to West Brom’s second goal en route to a 3-3 draw at the Hawthorns on Saturday:
Three goals conceded to a newly promoted outfit isn’t how Chelsea will have envisioned that result, and it was clear from Lampard’s body language on the touchline that he was likewise caught off guard. A large portion of the blame rightly lies with the defense—right-back Reece James was too slow to join the offside line for West Brom’s third—but it also pointed to the notion Chelsea’s new arrivals could make them too top-heavy in attack.
Lampard operated with a midfield three comprising any combination of N’Golo Kante, Mateo Kovacic, Mason Mount or Jorginho in his first term at the helm. It’s almost unthinkable that formation will persist given Ziyech, Havertz and Werner are near-certainties for the XI when fit—and that’s without mentioning high earner Callum Hudson-Odoi or Christian Pulisic, one of the standout performers from last season.
The result—on paper, at least—means Chelsea will be expected to score goals in vast quantities but also concede a lot themselves. Even with such a monumental spend on new names, four of Chelsea’s six Premier League goals this season have come from more familiar faces, via Statman Dave:
Chelsea’s rumored pursuit of West Ham anchor Declan Rice is indicative of the conundrum the club now finds itself in. So much has been spent improving the weapons in attack, there’s almost a feeling that the window won’t be “complete” until they recruit that coveted shield in front of defense. It’s akin to bulldozing one’s own house and rebuilding replete with a swimming pool and indoor tennis court, only to find there aren’t enough resources left for the roof.
If the swathe of summer signings are to start, it’s possible we’ll see Mount or Kovacic form the midfield pivot alongside Kante more often than not, a combination that will only lead to more questions of the back line being too exposed.
How long does Lampard get?
Some will protest this team is “one for the future” considering Chelsea’s major arrivals this summer—if we discount 36-year-old Silva—boast a median age of just 24. But that line will only work for so long on a board accustomed to challenging for the grandest accolades this side of the millennium.
The wealth of options now at the manager’s fingertips is in direct contrast to his first season, and now comes the time where Lampard’s nous has to match the level of quality among his squad.
Criticism of the 42-year-old has been apparent in what is only his third season as a senior coach, though The Athletic’s Liam Twomey argued any social media furor is not representative of the fandom as a whole:
Supporters won’t want to hear that time is the tonic for their team, but Chelsea will at least need to reach the end of the transfer window (Oct. 16) before they can reach a proper understanding of their squad for this season.
The club currently has seven centre-backs on its books, one example of the indecision regarding exactly who makes up the coach’s optimal XI. Silva’s signing provides a young squad with some crucial experience, but the leaky display at West Brom served to remind even the most well-travelled stars make mistakes.
There are few doubts about what this team can accomplish in the future, but it will speak of the manager’s ability as to how swiftly he can turn potential into prompt performance.
Chelsea have stumbled getting off the line in their second season under manager Lampard, but “Super Frank” will keep faith his follow-up act can still turn out more akin to “The Dark Knight,” and less like a Tim Burton comedy.